Entertainment

‘Steve Jobs’ is decent but not binary

Michael Fassbender’s performance in “Steve Jobs” is riveting.
Michael Fassbender’s performance in “Steve Jobs” is riveting. Universal Pictures

What It’s About

“Steve Jobs” is a cold, unflattering portrait of a man who changed life as we know it.

Daring, brainy, stylized, but ultimately frustrating, the film plays loose with the facts in a high-concept structure that vilifies a 20th century icon others have deified.

Jobs’ lack of people skills and cruel, dismissive treatment of loyal employees have been documented. But the movie fails to explain why designers, engineers and programmers would endure such humiliation.

Divided into basically three acts like a play, the movie focuses on three significant product launches — the Macintosh in 1984, Jobs’ NeXT project, post-Apple, in 1988, and the iMac, upon his return, in 1998.

Not that you can really tell, but the film is shot on 16mm, 35mm and digital for those separate thirds.

The major players at Apple and his daughter Lisa and her mother, Chrisann Brennan, show up beforehand for heated confrontations. The face-offs are exhausting examples of screenwriter Aaron Sorkin’s verbosity.

While the dialogue is clever and peppered with high-tech jargon, no one in real life talks like Sorkin writes. Oscar winner for “The Social Network,” Sorkin fails to give Jobs an emotional center. The difference in the films is that we were emotionally invested in Zuckerberg’s Facebook story.

Both revolutionaries transformed communication and were not what we refer to as “people-persons” by a longshot, an obviously compelling angle.

The source material is credited as Walter Isaacson’s authorized biography, but Sorkin has created situations that did not happen, and left out much of Jobs’ history. For instance, there is no mention of his wife and two children in 1998.

Actually, the much maligned 2013 biopic “Jobs” did a better job of outlining the visionary genius’ chronology.

Hyper-director Danny Boyle (“Slumdog Millionaire”) steers his camera through a backstage maze of hallways, dressing rooms, rehearsal spaces and the wings, while people spout Sorkin-speak.

Performances

The acting is the movie’s saving grace. As the complicated Jobs, Michael Fassbender scorches the screen. As intense as he is depicting Jobs’ obsessive perfectionism and massive ego, he also keeps us from ever caring about the guy.

But we care about three people he mercilessly tramples — Steve Wozniak “Woz,” the start-up tech whiz who accomplished the Apple II, played by a never-better Seth Rogen (“Neighbors”); Andy Hertzfeld, one of the under-appreciated geniuses who came aboard early, heartbreakingly portrayed by Michael Stuhlbarg (“A Serious Man”) in a marvelously nuanced performance, and his daughter Lisa, whom he shamefully refused to acknowledge for years. She is played superbly by three different actresses — Makenzie Moss at age 5, Ripley Sobo at age 9, and Perla Haney-Jardine at 19.

Kate Winslet is solid as the efficient Joanna Hoffman, Jobs’ right-hand woman and Apple’s director of marketing, who is the only person who can pierce his armor. She affects a Polish accent that gets stronger as the movie advances. Its absence is puzzling in the first few scenes.

Jeff Daniels is strong as Apple CEO John Sculley, one-time mentor who became an adversary.

What Works

There are times when Sorkin delivers a stunning zinger: After Jobs’ refuses to acknowledge the Apple II team, Woz shouts: “You can be decent AND gifted. It’s not binary!”

Bingo.

And when Jobs is sort of explaining his bad behavior: “I’m poorly made.”

What Doesn’t Work

Overall, the movie feels forced. The appeal might be limited, especially if you need your Mensa card for admittance.

What is sad is that this is a prestige picture certain to be among awards consideration at year’s end. But it truly is a thin veneer over a thin veneer.

2 1/2 stars out of 4

  • Director: Danny Boyle
  • Starring: Michael Fassbender, Kate Winslet, Jeff Daniels, Seth Rogen, Michael Stuhlbarg
  • Rated: R for language
  • Length: 2:02
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